By Sean Coughlan
Education reporter, BBC News
Parents in Brighton are to stage a protest against controversial school admission plans - which include the allocation of places by lottery and the introduction of fixed catchment areas.
Pupils find out about secondary school this week
With families across the country set to find out about secondary school places this week, the dispute in Brighton highlights the strong feelings aroused by school admissions.
Hundreds of parents in the south coast authority have attended public meetings, almost 4,000 people have signed a petition, protest websites have carried the latest developments and tens of thousands of leaflets have been distributed by campaigners.
The council will vote on Tuesday over the admissions changes - which if accepted would be introduced in September 2008.
The dispute in Brighton is local - but it reflects tensions that will be familiar to other families around the country trying to find a suitable school place for their children.
And it shows how there can be very different views about what is "fair" for individual families and the wider community.
In the Brighton example, the council says that it wants to shake up the admissions system to make sure that more children can have access to a local school.
As such, it is introducing fixed catchment areas, which will mean that each area will have an allocated school or schools - and effectively stopping children going to popular, oversubscribed schools which are outside their own catchment area.
Parents can be faced with tough choices over school places
Where there are two schools serving a catchment area, the allocation of places between these schools will be decided by a lottery - so that within the boundaries of a catchment area, there will be no priority given to living closer to a school.
There might be parents who are unhappy about the changes, says a council spokesperson, but "this is about what's fairest for the largest number of people".
Complicated? These arrangements are always complicated. And because it will affect children's futures there are strongly-held views and deep anxieties.
Mark Bannister, spokesperson for a campaign group, Schools4Communities, arguing against the new admissions plan, says the catchment area boundaries will cut some families off from sending their children to their local school.
And that fixing boundaries in this way will mean that children from the most deprived parts of the city will be pushed together, polarising social divisions.
'Level playing field'
However, he says that the bigger picture should not be about changing the admissions rules - there needed to be more schools and higher standards to take the pressure out of the competition for places.
"We shouldn't have everyone trying to scramble to get their children into one or two good schools. We need to get more capacity into the system, we need to raise standards so that everyone can have a good school," he says.
The council says that the changes will "level the playing field" for admissions - in particular helping families who do not live in the immediate vicinity of any school.
But for the families trying to make decisions about where they live and planning for their children's future this is a worrying process.
Kate Schreckenberg has recently moved to Brighton - and bought a house near to two schools which were her preferred options for her daughter.
She is within the "right" catchment area - but still fears that if these schools are oversubscribed, the decision about her daughter's school will be down to a lottery, and that if unsuccessful, it could mean her daughter having to travel further afield to find a place.
A supporter of state education, Ms Schereckenberg says that she recognises the conflict between individual self-interest and the wider idea of fairness - but the current dispute has left her unconvinced by the council's arguments.
And she questions the way that local political "machinations" are interwoven with the arguments about schools.
"There has been much debate about 'choice', but I'm not sure what kind of choice we're really getting. And there's been a lot of talk about 'social justice', but I can't see that here either," she says.
And she also questions a system which creates such pressure on the places in the schools seen as the most desirable.
But there are other parents who support the proposed changes - who believe that the catchment areas will give more people a chance to get into their preferred local school.
Chris Bourne, who will take part in a counter-demonstration, says that allocating places according to who lives closest gives an unfair advantage to people who can afford to buy a house very near to a popular school.
"People who live nearest get first bite of the cherry - then everyone else gets what's left over," says Mr Bourne, whose daughter could be among the first intake under the proposed regulations.
"This can mean that the children who don't live close enough are shipped all over the place," he says, "breaking up the friendships made at primary school."
Using a catchment area and a lottery will give at least some chance of getting into local schools which otherwise would not have been available to children, he says.
Everyone is agreed that they want a fair system, it's just that everyone has a different idea of what means fair.
Send us your comments:
In my neighbourhood, it is estimated that 1 out of 4 kids will not get into their local school and will be moved to a school further away. This will cause criss-crossing of kids all over the city, so is not only ridiculous but environmentally unfriendly. No one disagrees that there are children who are not getting into their school of choice, but this plan,only shifts the problem so that those of us who previously had a choice, may not have one. The decision to make this change has been influenced by politics, not fairness. What we need is a strategic plan for the future of Brighton & Hove schools that includes the building of new schools.
Liz Evans, Brighton
What happened to choice?
Peter, Brixham, Devon
I know full well the problems of popular, over-subscribed schools. I just moved into an area, and the local school is full - we now have to traipse three miles across town (were we could walk to our local school - how green is that!). However, social justice is also important, so I am concerned that the local council has not made any consideration or arrangement for those that cannot afford to live in the catchment area of a popular school (would it be that difficult to allocate 10% of all places to poorer areas?).
What is going on in Brighton beggars belief. The sad fact is that those parents who do live in an area with no close school happen also to live in those wards where the Green Party and Labour are fighting for seats...
If this goes through it is a whole school year who will have to live with the consequences. Those councillors will move on to whatever their next vote-puller is while our kids go up to secondary without their friends; often travelling miles away from one school to their "designated" school, passing other kids travelling to the school in their area. Most shameful of all two of our schools will be left to cater for all the kids from the areas with the highest levels of deprivation. Shame on our Labour and Green councillors and shame on our highly paid council officials who have all put politics before common sense.
Siobhan Mc Alinden, Brighton, East Sussex
Catchment areas are both bad and good. They are bad because of the effect that they can have on house prices. Our experience in Milton Keynes was of friends sacrificing a good house in a pleasant area to go to a smaller, more expensive house in a worse area just to be inside the catchment area for a particular school. On the positive side the stress that is removed from parents when they live within the guaranteed catchment of a good school. Five years ago we moved away from Milton Keynes because of its school system to Cheddar in Somerset, which has a first/middle/upper school system all based on geographic catchment. Admissions are simple: if you live in the Cheddar Valley you are guaranteed a place in the school. No stress, no fuss. The only parents that have any doubt are those who live outside the area in neighbouring North Somerset who want to send their children to our excellent schools.
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